A TOUGH 12 months is how Darwin Port chief executive, Captain Ian Niblock describes the past year of business at the northern port.
Coming off the back of a peak from the Ichthys project some sort of correction was, if not inevitable, certainly highly likely.
“We always knew we were going to come off the back of that peak.
“But we never thought we would also lose our mineral exports at about the same time and that there would be a downturn in oil and gas activity,” Captain Niblock says.
The good news, however, is that things appear ready to improve.
“It has already started to pick up. While it has been a tough 12 months, towards the end we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
“We have seen an increase in oil and gas activity with an oil and gas drilling program.
“Also, with INPEX to come on line towards the end of the year, they are in commissioning phase for offshore plans and activities. That is being served out of Darwin.”
Vessels are using Darwin as a marine supply base to service such projects as the Shell Prelude.
“We’ve seen the first of the vessels that will work for commissioning phase and into operational phase for Shell Prelude,” he says.
“We’re definitely seeing increased activity there.”
In February Darwin got back its bulk manganese exports.
“Since then, we’ve done the best part of 300,000 tonnes and we anticipate this year our primary customer will export about 800,000 tonnes (manganese).”
He notes there is reason to believe they will get back iron ore at some point.
“That comes down to the commodity price and getting it back to a point where it becomes viable for our miners to export again,” he says.
“In terms of bulk minerals, the junior miners struggle to compete with the majors and there is always going to be that tension.”
The container trade, he notes, has been “relatively quiet”.
“I do know we’ve seen a downturn in container numbers but one of the things the port has done in terms of future trade is developed additional reefer park capacity,” he says.
“That is purely around that chilled and frozen cargo potentially in the future. The potential for that to be a viable export for us given our proximity to the Asian market.
“We’ve gone from having 50 reefer points, we’ve now got 190 that are operational and the ability to increase that should we need to.”
Livestock took a dip last year but is still significant.
“While we haven’t seen those massive numbers that we have in previous years, we still did over 350,000 head of cattle through the port last year,” he says.
“We are seeing a steady stream of cattle export ships coming through the port at the moment.”
Some 82% of last year’s export was to Indonesia, the highest percentage during the past three years for that nation.
“Moving forward, there is potential for China to become a new market for us and they have been signalling to us for a number of years that there is a potential market,” he says.
“I know that a number of exporters have been in China and talking to them about what that might look like.
“In addition to the $12m reefer park which is now being completed, we’ve been doing some forward and strategic planning around extending the port.
“So at the moment we’re looking at an extension to East Arm Wharf and we’re in the phase of scoping what it might look like,” he says.
Meanwhile there is consideration of extending Fort Hill Wharf which is the wharf that serves the cruise industry and Defence.
The idea would be to allow for large cruise ships and even two cruise ships at a time.
“We had a record number of cruise ships last financial year,” he says.
He notes some 75 cruise ships visited the port last financial year compared with 72 the previous year.
This was a mix of smaller vessels during the dry season and the Kimberley Cruises and several smaller boutique ships.
“During the Southern Hemisphere summer we’ll see a lot of major cruise liners visit Darwin as they are relocating south and then heading back north,” Captain Niblock says.
“In February this year we had, in common with a lot of other Australian ports, we had the Ovation of the Seas through Darwin which was a very big day.
“Obviously a lot of planning went into that and upgrading of facilities. That was a great day for Darwin and a great spectacle for the public of Darwin to see a ship like that.”
Passengers enjoyed the stunning beauty of such places as Litchfield and Kakadu national parks, the local museums and the jumping crocodiles of the Adelaide River.
From the print edition August 24, 2017